by Steve Bivans
Listen to this post!
“We could destroy the Earth.”
Growing up during the Cold War in the 1970s and 80s, I remember hearing that phrase a lot. It scared the crap out of me, of course.
I remember waking up sometimes in the middle of the night, from a recurring nightmare. In this frightening dream, I was always standing outside of my house, looking up at the sky where I could see the ice-trails of inter-continental ballistic missiles streaking across the cold blue like some kind of sinister, tic tac toe game; then there was a flash.
That’s usually when I would wake up in a cold sweat.
I don’t have those nightmares anymore, thanks to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, though nuclear war is still a threat of sorts. Instead I worry about other threats these days, ones that are very much as real, and already happening. When it comes to global climate change, the loss of safe drinking water, and several other major environmental crises, the missiles are in the air, the x’s are lined up 3 in a row,
and we’re waiting for the shock wave.
But we cannot destroy the Earth, any more than Sauron could destroy Middle Earth, in Tokien’s timeless stories. I’ve always thought that was the most arrogant thing I’ve ever heard a human say. The Earth, and life, was here billions of years before we ever dropped down out of the trees and started walking upright, and it will be here for a very long time after we’ve ceased to exist, I suspect.
In The Lord of the Rings, the ancient-ness or permanence of Middle Earth, is embodied in two characters, a man and wife: Tom Bombadil and Goldberry
“Don’t you know my name yet? That’s the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless? But you are young and I am old. Eldest, that’s what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the little People arriving. He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. He knew the dark under the stars when it was fearless—before the Dark Lord came from Outside.”
Bombadil’s character is probably the most enigmatic one in all of Tolkien’s stories. He is controversial as well, mostly because fans are divided on a couple of points. One, is his character necessary to the story? And two, just who the heck IS HE, or more accurately, WHAT is he?
To the first question, there is only one answer: yes. Tolkien certainly felt he was necessary to the story, or he wouldn’t have included him. At the very least, he serves a couple of plot advancing purposes. He gives the hobbits a well deserved break from adventures, not to mention the fact that he rescues them from the clutches of a pissed off willow tree. Up to this point the hobbits have been pursued by Dark Riders, lost in the Old Forest, and nearly swallowed by Old Man Willow! They needed a break.
Two, and most importantly I think, Tom Bombadil demonstrates that the Ring is not the most ancient power in Middle Earth, nor is its true master, Sauron.
There are things and beings that are far older and immune to Sauron’s evil. Tom is unaffected by the Ring; he sees it as an interesting trinket, at best. That’s not to say he doesn’t understand that it’s evil; he does advise Frodo that the Ring is unsuited for his fair fingers. But the Ring has no hold whatsoever on Tom. He plays with it, puts it on his finger, flips it into the air, makes it disappear, but shows no sign that it affects any lasting hold on his mind, and had no effect on him, or his senses. Tom can even see Frodo while the hobbit is wearing the Ring!
Gandalf points out, at the Council of Elrond, that to send the Ring to Bombadil—as some suggested—might seem prudent from the standpoint that it had no power over Tom, but that’s because it held no fascination to him; he might easily toss it aside, or forget where he had stored it, only for it to resurface in the hands of someone less worthy than Frodo.
So, who or what is Tom?
There have been numerous attempts to answer those questions. In an essay, almost 20 years ago, Professor Gene Hargrove suggested that Tom was an earthly embodiment of the Valar, Aule the Smith, and for many years I was convinced that he was correct. But lately I’ve given it more thought, and after reading an article by Steuard Jensen, “What is Tom Bombadil?: A Nature Spirit? and Conclusions,” awhile back, I tend to mostly agree with him that old Tom and his wife, Goldberry are more likely the embodiment of the spirit of Arda, or Middle Earth itself, the equivalent of our Mother Earth.
When the hobbits ask him to come along with them, after their adventure in the Barrow Downs, Tom basically admits that to leave his forest is not something that he is interested in doing. While this seems to suggest that Tom is a localized spirit, Gandalf later reveals that Tom was not always tied to the Old Forest and Barrow Downs,
“now he is withdrawn into a little land, within bounds that he has set, though none can see them, waiting perhaps for a change of days, and he will not step beyond them.”
Jensen argued that Tom seems to have chosen to remain there, because it was an area that was still wild, and closer to the natural state that all Middle Earth had known. Tom certainly has great power, especially over his domain, the Old Forest and Barrow Downs. He calms Old Man Willow, and the barrow-wight, by singing magical songs. When he sings, things listen. Goldberry seems to have power, or influence over everything watery and the birds, plants and animals.
We will probably never solve the mystery of Bombadil and his wife, Goldberry, but whatever they were intended to be, they are symbols of the natural world, or are closely allied to it.
Bombadil, in our world, as far as I’m concerned anyway, symbolizes the power of nature
and of certain places in nature: forests especially. His wife, Goldberry, is running water and rain. They are for us like Mother Nature, who is much older than our corrupted, evil Ring (the idea that the Earth belongs to us).
As bad as we humans abuse Nature, I personally don’t think we can ‘kill’ her. She does not belong to us, we belong to her, and she can kick us to the curb in an instant, if ever she’s of a mind to do so. She is laughing at us and our arrogance, and could squash us like a bug at any moment. Our trinkets and technologies are curiosities to her, nothing more. They are like flashes of light: here and gone in an instant, like Sauron’s Ring was in the hands of Bombadil.
Ancient, indigenous cultures have long worshiped such Nature spirits. They learned to ‘listen’ to the spirit of a place, a forest, a river, a tree, and to communicate with them in a very real sense. Don’t think for a moment that Mother Nature isn’t talking to us. Just because we have ‘selective hearing,’—like mother Bivans has always said of my father, and me—doesn’t mean she isn’t whispering in our ear. Sometimes, like my mom, it’s a bit louder than a whisper. Sometimes she’s roaring, and calling us by first, middle and last name, “Stephen John Bivans!!!” That was never good news. And you couldn’t run away. There is no ‘away’ from Linda Bivans. There’s also no away from Mother Nature, or Tom, or Goldberry.
Humans–including our primate ancestors– have existed for only the tiniest fraction of the Earth’s immense history–about 3 million years roughly–and within that time period, our destructive ‘taker’ culture, has existed for even less time, about 10,000 years–a comparative blink of an eye, the time it took Bombadil to ‘wink’ the Ring out of sight, and back again.
So while WE are not permanent, the Earth is comparatively so. Sure, we can destroy, and have destroyed, much of the life on this planet. We continue to do that every day. But long before we destroy it all, we will cease to exist, since, you know, we kind of need that life to sustain our own. The earth will still be here laughing at us, for a brief second, then forget we were ever here.
Yes, at some point, billions of years from now, the Earth will be destroyed by the sun, or bombarded into a rock by asteroids or a comet, but I suspect that we will be long gone by then, if we haven’t figured out how to live more harmoniously, and found a way to Star Trek our asses into the Milky Way to find a new home. Hopefully, we’ll learn our lesson before we do, or ole Tom Bombadilo will just be laughing at us again, on a different rock, spinning around a different sun, watching us play with our magic techno-ring-trinkets.